Can’t take the mu­si­cian out of the pro­ducer

> Easter trades stage for stu­dio, but ven­tures out to recharge fun side

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Music - By Bob Mehr

mehr@com­mer­cialap­peal.com

Mitch Easter might’ve helped shape the sound of early R.E.M. and be­came one of the key sonic ar­chi­tects of what would be­come al­ter­na­tive mu­sic, but he’s never been comfortable with the term “pro­ducer.”

“I know it sounds like a co­quet­tish thing to say, but I just never thought of my­self that way,” says Easter. “I was re­ally ex­cited about open­ing a stu­dio and work­ing on records, but ex­actly what my role was — I didn’t think about that. I would be work­ing on th­ese projects and the records would come out and they’d say that I’d pro­duced them. I was like ‘Oh, re­ally?’ In my mind a pro­ducer was some­one like Quincy Jones. I didn’t think I was qual­i­fied for the job.”

Easter would prove him­self more than qual­i­fied: Start­ing in the early ’80s, he would craft a suc­ces­sion of in­flu­en­tial and highly re­garded al­bums for the likes of R.E.M., Game The­ory, the Wind­break­ers, and Mar­shall Cren­shaw. But his work in the stu­dio meant that his main pas­sion, play­ing mu­sic, was set to the side.

Th­ese days, Easter has re­turned to his first love — at least part time. On Fri­day, he’ll head­line the third an­nual Mem­phis Pops Fes­ti­val, a free con­cert tak­ing place Down­town next to Earnes­tine & Hazel’s.

The show will mark Easter’s first lo­cal ap­pear­ance in some 20 years. “There’s a lot of sat­is­fac­tion in mak­ing records. But that’s work, and play­ing in a band is play,” says Easter of his cur­rent group, which in­cludes his wife Shalini Chat­ter­jee. “Nowa­days, we’re sort of power hob­by­ists. We’ll go out for a lit­tle run of dates, and it’s al­ways fun.”

For much of the ’80s, Easter was able to jug­gle both his thriv­ing ca­reers. His Drive-In Record­ing Stu­dio in Win­ston-Salem, N.C. — lo­cated in a two-car garage — be­came the hub of the South­ern pop move­ment. Mean­time, Easter was mak­ing noise him­self with his combo Let’s Ac­tive.

But, even­tu­ally, some­thing had to give, and it turned out it was Easter’s per­form­ing ca­reer. Af­ter three crit­i­cally ac­claimed LPs, Let’s Ac­tive qui­etly came to a halt in 1988.

“The band was run­ning out of gas. I had to let it go in a prac­ti­cal sense, be­cause the stu­dio was a real job,” says Easter. “It was a kind of heart­break for me; I would’ve stayed in the same band for the rest of my life, be­cause I loved the idea of that. But few peo­ple get that op­por­tu­nity.”

Easter turned his at­ten­tion to pro­duc­tion full time, even­tu­ally open­ing a new com­mer­cial stu­dio and spending the ’90s and much of the 2000s en­gi­neer­ing and pro­duc­ing records for in­die greats in­clud­ing Di­nosaur Jr., Vel­vet Crush, Pave­ment and Su­per­chunk.

Fi­nally, in 2007, Easter re­leased a solo record, Dy­nam­ico— his first new mu­sic in 18 years. “The worst thing for fin­ish­ing a record is to be in the stu­dio busi­ness like I am. Be­cause the stu­dio is al­ways be­ing used by some­one else,” says Easter. “It’s hard to ac­tu­ally find enough time to get any­thing go­ing. Dy nam­ico was mostly stuff that was al­ready ly­ing around that I just got to fin­ish.”

Easter says he’s got more than enough ma­te­rial to put out a fol­low-up. “Af­ter that last one, which came out af­ter this fan­tas­tic length of time, I thought it would be cool to release an­other record six months later, like bands in the ’60s used to, but I couldn’t get it to­gether,” he says, with a chuckle. “I’m not gonna make any claims about when I’m go­ing to pull it to­gether, but I’m gonna try to get some­thing else out pretty soon.”

Aside from R.E.M., few of the bands that emerged from the ’80s South­ern pop and jan­gle pop scenes made any big com­mer­cial waves, but now there seems to be a re­newed re­spect and in­ter­est in the sort of sounds that Easter and his peers were mak­ing.

“Well, in my day, ‘jan­gle pop’ was a some­what dis­parag­ing term. It would be the kind of thing a rock critic would use to put you down as he was mov­ing away from you and to the Pix­ies or some­thing a lit­tle more tough,” says Easter, laugh­ing.

“But I’m re­al­iz­ing in re­cent years with younger peo­ple it does not have the same neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions. I’ve had bands come into the stu­dio and use that term shame­lessly, in a way that no one my age would. Maybe there is some kind of re­assess­ment of the his­tory there, which now sees that pe­riod as some great time in mu­sic.”

Af­ter more than 30 years in the busi­ness, Easter says he’s still happy do­ing what he does, and has come to view his work in the stu­dio like that of a crafts­man.

“For me it’s like dis­cov­er­ing that you re­ally like to make things out of glass or wood or some­thing. It’s this kind of hands-on thing, but it also to­tally engages your brain and so­cial senses in a way that’s just right for me,” he says. “I’m re­ally happy that I found a job I like. Even af­ter all this time, I’m not bored with it; there’s still stuff I want to do, so I hope I can keep do­ing it.”

Mitch Easter is mak­ing one of his oc­ca­sional for­ays back into per­form­ing af­ter a pro­duc­tion ca­reer took away his time.

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